JusticeLA Fights Jail Expansion Plan

Crucial June 11 Petition Deadline for Ballot Measure

By Jason David, White People 4 Black Lives [Excerpts]


The LA County Board of Supervisors has approved a jail expansion plan that will cost an estimated $3.5 billion. That is an extraordinary amount of money to waste on the caging of human beings, especially when we can invest those resources into providing greater access to affordable housing, jobs, health care, public education, and healthy food — critical elements that serve human needs and prove not only impactful on lowering recidivism rates, but promise far greater safety for all in the long run.

People of color, especially black people, who are disproportionately targeted and devastated by our current commitment to mass incarceration, have been fighting on behalf of their own well-being and the safety of their families and communities. It is time that white people, and especially wealthy and middle class white people, see that the fight against mass incarceration and criminal injustice is our fight as well.

As Ibram Kendi points out in his history of racist thinking in the US, Stamped From the Beginning, dominant groups don’t perpetuate or support oppressive systems primarily because of hatred or ignorance — we do so because we believe those systems benefit us and we have internalized racist ideas that justify inequities. I can admit that my own perception has been severely distorted when it comes to crime and safety. For too long I have internalized negative portrayals of people of color as dangerous and believed “tough on crime” policies have made me safer.

But we do, however, now have an urgent, time-sensitive opportunity to act in solidarity with communities directly impacted by these discriminatory and dehumanizing jail systems. [Ed: JusticeLA is circulating petitions for a ballot measure that would empower the Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission to study how much of the money devoted to jail expansion could be better spent on education, mental health and social services that would reduce or provide alternatives to incarceration. 150,000 signatures must be collected and submitted by June 11 to qualify for the November ballot.]

LA County already has the largest jail system in the world [run by the LA Sheriff’s Dept.]. On average, there are 17,500 prisoners in the county jail system on any given day; 80% are Black or Latino. This county has the harshest bail system in the US. Just over half the jail population has yet to stand trial, primarily due to high bail amounts. Research shows people with mental health conditions get worse in jail. The chance of developing a mental health condition [for the first time] doubles once incarcerated.

Incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate. The vast majority of people behind bars are there for non-violent drug offenses or being criminalized for poverty, such as not affording bail, inability to pay debts incurred via penalties and fines for infractions, and laws targeting homeless people. CA voters have signaled a clear shift away from incarceration and toward alternatives to sentencing, such as passing Propositions 47 (reduced penalties for some crimes), 36 (drug treatment instead of jail), and 57 (early release for non-violent offenses). Unfortunately, much of the money earmarked for diversion is funneled into the Sheriff’s Department and not used to advance the true spirit and aim of the propositions. This highlights the need to sustain our civic engagement and build a powerful base of support after we step outside of the voting booth.

Why do we still lock millions of people behind bars? Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has stated that slavery did not end, it merely evolved. He traces a line of racist terror through US history connecting slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, frames a powerful well-researched argument that posits mass incarceration as merely the revamped version of segregation?. Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” builds on these arguments and traces a haunting chronology, in which slavery was never actually abolished but instead kept alive through a constitutional loophole and deceptive projects such as the War on Drugs.

Perhaps just as significant as the actions of enslavers, lynchers, rabid segregationists, and lobbyists for the prison industry are the everyday acts of complicity and complacency by white and wealthy people who, for many reasons, think these systems are justified in some way. It has largely been the passive acceptance and permission of white people that has allowed for atrocities and oppression to be systemically enacted on people of color. Just as ?white abolitionists challenged slavery because of its brutal inhumanity, we white people are called upon again to take action against the current manifestation of that system, which we must still see as a violation of our most basic standards of human decency.

I have joined a powerful new coalition looking to halt this jail expansion project and reinvest the money in community well-being. JusticeLA represents a number of grassroots organizations and grounds its work in the lives, voices, and aspirations of individuals and families directly impacted by incarceration.

Ed: There is an urgent need to engage with and support their work by donating and by signing and circulating the petition this month to put the Reform LA Jails initiative on the ballot in the fall. To learn

more and sign up to distribute petitions, contact Reform LA Jails, the action arm of the coalition, at https://reformlajails.com/ action/

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